Proposal would ban council, mayor from having contracts with city

2013-01-29T06:00:00Z 2015-08-13T16:09:12Z Proposal would ban council, mayor from having contracts with cityBy NANCY HICKS / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

A proposal to prohibit Lincoln City Council members and the mayor from having any contracts with city government is intended to promote fairness and eliminate conflicts of interest, supporters say.  

But at least one opponent says the proposed ban would keep business owners from seeking office and is aimed at Republicans.

A group of local and state organizations will seek voter approval for the ban by asking the council to put the proposed charter amendment on the May 7 city ballot.   

They say the measure is neither an attack on any individual candidate nor an attempt to keep business owners from running for office.

Council members and the mayor should not be allowed to have contracts with the city because of potential and perceived conflicts of interest, the supporters say.

"It is not fair for a person on a City Council or the mayor to bid on city work," said Roger Holmes, a local small-business owner and president of Common Cause Nebraska, one of the groups pushing for reform in Lincoln.

"It is at best awkward and at worst poses real problems for employees of the city who oversee the contract," he said.

None of the current council members has any contracts with the city, but one of the six candidates does. 

Candidate Mark Whitehead is president of Whitehead Oil, which, as low bidder, just got a four-year contract to provide fuel for the city and the county.

The coalition of supporters has written the proposal so it would not affect current members or candidates, and the ban would begin June 7, after those elected in May have taken office. 

The start date assures the measure will not affect Whitehead -- if he wins a seat -- until he runs for re-election, the supporters said.

"This issue is about good government. It is not targeted at any single candidate and we bent over backwards to make sure it wouldn't," said Kathleen Neary, a Lincoln attorney who serves on the Charter Revision Committee.   

Whitehead could not be reached for comment.

But Councilman Jon Camp, who once leased office space to a city agency, is livid about the proposed ban.

"I am vehemently opposed to this," he said Monday afternoon. "And it is an affront to the business community."

The current system, which requires full disclosure and prohibits a council member with a city contract from voting on it, is adequate, Camp said.    

It is imperative to get experienced business people on the council, he said.

"(This proposed ban) puts another nail in that coffin.

"It is already a huge financial sacrifice for a business person to serve on the council."

But coalition supporters said they don't believe a ban would hurt candidate recruitment, noting that Omaha has had a similar ban for 50 years.

"In a city of a quarter of a million people, there are probably ample people to run for council who don't have contracts with the city," said Patte Newman, a former city councilwoman who has long supported banning members from having city contracts.

"It is patently unfair for a private business to have to compete with government officials," Neary said. "It is a no-brainer." 

Mayor Chris Beutler has supported a ban on contracts for city employees, directors and elected officials and has handed down an executive order that bans his aides and directors from contracting with the city. 

Supporters at a Monday morning news conference pointed out that many of them have supported a ban on city elected officials having contracts with the city for a number of years.

The council could create the ban via city ordinance, but supporters believe voters ought to be asked whether they approve.

Creating a charter amendment would give voters that chance and, if successful, means it could be removed only with a vote of the people. 

Putting the issue on the ballot makes it a less partisan issue, said Becky Gould, executive director of Nebraska Appleseed. 

The proposal is expected to go to the council in early February. It will appear on the May 7 ballot if it is approved by at least four council members.

Groups supporting the proposal include Common Cause Nebraska, the League of Women Voters of Lincoln and Lancaster County, Lancaster County Nebraskans for Civic Reform and Nebraska Appleseed.

It specifically prohibits council members, mayor or city department directors from having significant financial interest in any contract or other business dealings with the city.

The threshold for significant financial interest is income of at least $5,000 or more than 5 percent ownership in a business, or annual income derived from that business that exceeds 5 percent of the total annual income of the person involved.

Reach Nancy Hicks at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com.

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